Regular readers of this column would probably realise by now that I have a thing for stereotypes. Well, the current interest was raised by the recent debate that surrounded two issues: the Sony Playstation advert, in which there was a mention of a Nigerian 419er, and the South African movie ‘District 9’. Shortly after the Sony Playstation advert was released, Mrs Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s information minister, wrote a letter of complaint to Sony, demanding that the part that referred to Nigeria in the advert be changed. Sony promptly obliged.
‘District 9’ has Nigerians depicted as criminals and cannibals, with a gang-leader called Obesanjdo (uncannily close to name of the former president, no less). The good minister has asked Sony Entertainment, the parent company of the distributors of the movie, to apologise to Nigerians, and to edit out wherever the name of the country is mentioned in the movie. She has also directed that the public screening of the movie in Abuja be stopped.
I have not yet seen the movie but from what I have read from reviews, the movie seems to have borrowed the worst from Nollywood movies. I consider tapping into an existing body of work fair game, but I think that taking snatches and omitting the context is an extreme form of laziness. But then, when one thinks about it, was this kind of misrepresentation not something waiting to happen?
I would like to see a level of outcry similar to the one that has followed the movie directed towards Nollywood movies that portray Nigerians as people who make money from human body parts. Or is that belief so entrenched in the minds of Nigerians that it cannot be questioned? On the part of Nollywood producers, I hope that this makes them realise that they are making movies for the whole of Africa. Indeed, many Africans think that ritual killing, along with some form of cannibalism, is very prevalent in Nigeria.
I find the references to Nigeria and the depiction of Nigerians in the movie highly distasteful, in case you are curious.
It is pretty obvious to everybody that Igbo have the reputation of being the money-loving, money-making, industrious people of Nigeria. Nigerian stereotypes go this way: The Igbo are the traders, the Yoruba are your average school-goers who look forward to a comfortable future earning predictable salaries, and the Hausa rule the country. In most cases, the other ethnic groups stay off the radar.
Many Igbo people often join in essentialising themselves by saying that they (the Igbo) are simply natural traders, and that their ‘republican spirit’ and lack of recognition of central authority predispose them to becoming great businessmen. Those are the ones who are very clear-headed about it. Most simply say that they have trade in their blood, that that is why they are successful as businessmen.
The interesting thing is that in the Republic of Benin, the Beninese Yoruba are described – and describe themselves – in terms similar to the ones Nigerians use in describing the Igbo. One hears expressions like: ‘No matter what a Yoruba man does, even if he studies in the university, he has to come back to trade. It is simply in our blood.’ Those are about the same words with which the Nigerian Igbo describe themselves. And these are Yoruba who happen to be divided into a different country by colonial borders.
My interest in stereotypes is linked to the fact that there is often something to them, otherwise they would not exist at all. Even if they are outright falsehood, at least they modify behaviour in certain ways. That is the reason why I think it is necessary to often bring them out and examine them. To examine them, it is necessary to place them in the historical, political and socio-economic context in which they appeared. That, for instance, would help to understand why the Yoruba have a different reputation across the border.